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Taste in an age of endless choice
Submitted by Francesca R
7th August 2017
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Tom Vanderbilt attempts rather well to demonstrate that, contrary to some received wisdom, there is accounting for taste. His book is an account for it. Moreover plenty of it is logical, or at least predictable, given a modest background in behavioural quirks that seem entertainingly daft, but which are mostly honed by evolutionary stuff. It's quite hard to get past the quadruple-decker ice cream cone on the front cover of the paperback, because there are no such pictures inside.

incidentally the reason why ice cream or chocolate dessert is demanded at the end of dinner: that's when the diner is fullest. Food has to work harder than other times to get intake. So morsels rich in sweet lovelies are what make the cut.

Taste--likes and dislikes--are best viewed as a cognitive means to manage sensory information overload. "Gut" feelings filter a world of endless choice. Not that people dislike choice. Actually they like the idea of it but not its employment so much. Your reviewer loves (mostly American) diners with a ten page breakfast menu but she will almost always seek out corned beef hash, if indulgence permits (she can't finish it though). And as Spotify's music catalogue increases incessantly like entropy does, a shadow website, Forgotify, has spent the last few years showing that a fifth of the content (4 million songs at last count) has never been listened to, ever.

We rarely decide to like things in a vacuum of course. Expectations matter hugely. Salmon flavour sorbet earns resounding thumbs-down, yet billed as savoury mouse, perhaps on toast, it's agreeable. Novels that have won prizes do sell better than unknowns, but suffer more dashed expectations as being not what their consumers hoped for. Expert reviews can influence taste too, but it's not easy to find, or even justify the existence of experts any more. In theory crowd-sourced cloud-powered cyberspace should have rendered them extinct by now, but haven't. Reason one why is that the web "crowd" is actually hardly any people (as a fraction of the real population). Reason two reviews are often meaninglessly positive, or bipolar, without the need of "fake news" input. Hardly anyone gives negative e-Bay feedback because of vulnerability to symmetric retaliation. Youtube felt compelled to introduce its thumbs down because the single option of a positive verdict quickly became meaningless. Furthermore for all the playing-field levelling that is supposed to have happened, trust issues in democratised criticism and internet-word-of-mouth have kind of rebounded such that reviewer heirarchy--expertise--being reintroduced by the back door ("top reviewer" and the like). By the way your reviewer has no credentials that might buttress her write up here. Unless you, erm, like some of her other reviews.

There is something called the exposure effect which can lead to taste being acquired. Few people like coffee or lager the first time but they strangely work at it, and their brain sweetens the pot. (Prosecco is another matter, doesn't need that). But over exposure can push that into reverse with some things, coffee and beer probably not included. People like songs more that they have heard often before, and memory tends to be a radio station that only plays what we want to hear, so music from your youth is somehow always better than the noise they put out today. And in general taste is evolutionarily adaptive: what didn't kill you last time is good for you this time, so says the human brain. And choosing what to eat once really was a life and death thing.

But tastes change, in an individual and via collective influence, also en-masse. It doesn't seem to make much biological sense that 1980s big hair was in then but out now. However birds have their version of such trends too, with birdsong having been recorded to drift from one thing to a quite different one over time. One decent explanation is that this is actually caused by random error and then mass imitation, both of which are happening all the time and so a neutral drift occurs which can't be put down to anything really except mistakes (eighties hair, yes). This is a bit like Darwinian / Galtonian evolution and eugenics, if a little less harsh. But it supplements survival of the fittest with a means to arrival of the fittest. It works with things as mundane as words: "throve" was not a regular verb that thrived for example.

Still this leaves much taste that probably can't be accounted for. Particularly because a thing can't often even be described, still less be given a justification of why you should like it: carrot experts (if there are any) have tremendous difficulty saying what one tastes like, besides carroty. So sometimes it may just be better to forget about this. More than a few winery owners from this reviewer's country of birth would tend to describe their product as "a bloody drink, so drink it", even as she remains convinced that Marlborough sauvignon blanc is the best wine there is, for lots of reasons. She will get back to you on what those are maybe.
Tom Vanderbilt

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